So close to home... Yet so far

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- It was supposed to be a safe haven for six months. Now, 40 years later, dozens of Cuban day laborers have grown old in what they thought would be temporary residence in this U.S.-controlled corner of Cuba.

Theirs is a curious Cold War subculture - an aged, dwindling population of Cuban workers that chose to side with the U.S. Navy in the early, chaotic days of Fidel Castro's revolution.

Rather than move on and resettle in the United States, these exiles have continued to work and live here with special Pentagon dispensation, some still shunning offers of U.S. citizenship, in a limbo-like existence, while they wait to go home.

Meantime, these Cubans live in Navy housing - rent-free. They get the best Defense Department healthcare - cost-free.

Most have retired on U.S. government pensions, but about a dozen still work. One bags groceries for tips. Another walks each morning from his bachelor suite to his clerk's job at a Navy supply office. Two are waiters at the Windjammer, a restaurant and nightspot on this mostly sleepy 45-square-mile base where sailors and the 64 special Cuban residents live in suburban-style white stucco housing - alongside international terror suspects inhabiting seven-by-eight steel cells.

Although they have been community fixtures for years, their story is seldom told. After months of requests, the Navy finally let The Herald get a rare glimpse inside the lives of these Cubans who live with a special Pentagon status: "Long Term Visitors."

The Cubans here are people such as Paulina Wilson, 70, who as a nanny and housecleaner left her two children in her mother's care on the communist side in 1962. She has since remarried, raised two more children and these days runs the Navy Hospital's linen room, neither ready to retire nor to move on.

"It feels like Cuba because it's Cuban land, " she said, explaining why she has spurned suggestions that she relocate stateside.

And there's Ramón Ramírez, 59, who helped his grandfather deliver fruits and vegetables on a boat that plied the Guantánamo River. He moved onto this outpost on Dec. 28, 1959, after he realized that his grandfather was right - communism was coming to Cuba. He was 17.

"My grandfather said, 'If you want to stay alive or out of jail, you'd better stay here, ' " Ramírez said. He has visited the United States, but always comes back to the base known as Gitmo because, after four decades, it has become home.

"We have the only geriatric Navy housing anywhere, " said Navy Capt. Robert Buehn, the base commander. "Don't look for any regulations that cover this. It's a funny place. It evolved this way and we're just trying to take care of the people the right way."

The oldest of the "temporary guests" are 90 and 91, house-bound widows who require visiting nurse care. Once a month, a Navy volunteer takes them to the graves of their husbands, who died here and were buried on the base.

The youngest member of the base's Cuban community is José, 5, the son from a recent union between a septuagenarian Cuban waiter called "Boxer" and a Jamaican contract worker who is less than half his age. Because of his father's status here, the boy can live on the base through high school.

One of the men has for years taught judo and karate to Navy children.

Another resident is Gloria Martínez, 69, a grandmotherly figure who can be found most days working for tips at the checkout line of the Navy Exchange, Gitmo's grocery store.

Like many, Martínez said she stayed, at first, because she thought the upheaval would be over soon. Her husband, a former army officer loyal to Fulgencio Batista, who ruled Cuba before Castro, had already sought sanctuary on the base. So on April 23, 1961, she drove right inside, after using a bogus identification card to pass a Cuban police checkpoint.

Everyone, it seems, thought the U.S.-Castro crisis would last "about six months."

Her husband, she said, was to serve as a scout for any counter-invasion of Cuba's eastern provinces. But the invasion never happened. So he worked as a base janitor and builder, saving money to one day move to Hialeah. He was killed in an electrical accident while working on a house in Hialeah during a visit. She buried him in Opa-locka, and, although their daughter and son have since moved to Florida, she said, after 40 years, Gitmo feels most like home.

"I 'm afraid to live in the States alone, " she said. "It's too crazy driving in Miami. If Cuba opens, I will go back and take the buses."

U.S. forces first came to Guantánamo in 1898, during the Spanish-American war. Five years later, presidents Tomás Estrada Palma and Theodore Roosevelt signed the first lease agreement to establish this U.S. Navy repair and refueling station. Over time, it became a magnet for Cuban workers, notably in the 1950s among young people who moved to nearby Guantánamo City and Caimanera from Batista's hometown of Banes.

Working with Americans was, for some, a family tradition. Some of their parents had worked for the American-owned United Fruit Co. in Banes, and so they came here to work as everything from ditch-diggers and translators to cooks and clerks.

Old-timers recall that the pay was good. Many earned 25 cents an hour.

When Fidel Castro came to power, he and other revolutionaries wanted to break the $2,000-a-year lease signed in 1934. They cast the base as an enemy interloper - an unwanted corner of colonialism in the Caribbean. The exiles here recall that police pressured workers to quit their jobs or, worse, spy on their bosses and co-workers. Cuban gate guards subjected workers to humiliating strip searches.

By 1964 Castro's anger had boiled so much that he cut off two-way vehicle traffic from the Cuban land that abuts Guantánamo - and accused the Americans of stealing Cuban water. The Pentagon countered by building a desalination plant.

Navy commanders also made their commuter workers a standing offer: Stay here and sleep in barracks until the U.S.-Cuban rift is settled.

Edgar Lewis, 78, who had worked on the base since 1943 as a translator, accepted the offer on Feb. 26, 1961.

"I was having my little problems with the Cuban police. I never started out thinking it would be so long. I lost my father, lost my mother over there - I never saw them before they died."

But life, he says, has steadily improved. After the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the workers moved from their barracks to a trailer park. Then in the 1980s they got the same housing as Navy families.

Today he and his wife, Loleeta, a Jamaican who works as a clerk at command headquarters, occupy a four-bedroom home in a neighborhood called Caribbean Circle near Gitmo's mostly brown golf course. Their daughter, Monique, 21, lives in Jacksonville with her brother.

Lewis recalled the base's boom-and-bust history, from its height during the Cold War when more than 10,000 troops were here to support an artillery battalion, tank platoon and DC-9 squadron.

Lewis was already retired by the mid-1990s when Gitmo became awash in tent camps for more than 50,000 Haitian and Cuban boat people who were intercepted en route to Florida. He was earning a government pension and refining his stroke on the golf course when Washington ordered a downsizing that closed up housing and cut the base population to 2,400 by late last year.

Now, about 6,000 people live here, both U.S. forces and contract workers.

In January, the Pentagon found a new purpose for Gitmo - America's off-shore detention center for international terror suspects from Afghanistan's Taliban militia and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda movement.

"The United States is in a state of war right now, " Lewis said. "This place is essential." By cultural measures, this place is less Cuban than many corners of Miami. There are no cafecito counters, and meals are spicy at The Cuban Club, a base restaurant where Jamaicans work in the kitchen, and the menus are in English.

Dennis Miller, 39, runs it. He was born on the base and went to school here and still lives with his Cuban-born mother, Paulina Wilson, 70, who has worked full-time in the Navy hospital linen room for 35 years. His father died years ago, as did his kid brother, who had moved to Miami and was killed in a train accident.

Now Miller says he prefers the solitude of Gitmo to the fast life of, say, Miami, which he has visited. "This is my home. I feel comfortable here."

So does his Santiago-born mother, who decided to stay in 1962 to earn money as the nanny to Navy officers' children - and find a way to send some back home to the daughter and son she had left with her parents.

"They told me that they thought it would last for six months, maybe, " she recalled wryly. "I'm still waiting for those six months."

Meantime, she has missed her parents' funerals and has only spoken to her two Cuban-side children by telephone through a third-country hook-up. "They're married now. They have their own children now. God give me the strength."

But, she said, she has made good on her plan to ship a share of her earnings to family in Castro's Cuba. Twice this year, she sent $600, via Canada.

"I'm glad that I'm here and I can help them. If I couldn't help them it wouldn't be worth it," she said.

Work is one reason that Harry Sharpe, 72, stays. He runs the buffet line at the Mongolian Barbecue at the Windjammer restaurant, where he pulls down a $2,200-a-month salary and gets two weeks of paid vacation.

It's a big improvement over the 12 cents an hour he earned his first day of work - March 30, 1953 - first pushing a wheelbarrow, then polishing brass plates in a command office. Another incentive, he said, is that housing has been free ever since July 30, 1963, when he finally moved in.

"My goal is to go back to Cuba and live when Castro leaves or when the U.S. lifts the embargo, so I can get my pension there, " said Sharpe, who is three years away from full retirement.

Sharpe has obtained U.S. citizenship and a home in Pensacola. And he has family scattered between the United States and Cuba. U.S.-born nephews Shannon, Sterling and Lewis Sharpe were NFL players. Two other nephews, the sons of a different brother, are doctors at a government-run hospital in Havana.

Yet, with a 30-foot boat here and free medical care that saw him airlifted to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C. for a thyroid condition, he is in no hurry to leave. If the Cuban system is unchanged when he retires, he says, he might move to Detroit, where a brother lives.

"Pensacola's too slow for me, " he explains. "And I don't much like Miami. It's too much 'Cuba' there. Everybody's the boss there. They're going to go back and take over. They've been saying that for 40 years."

Meantime, the Navy is grappling with increasing concern for the Cubans' deteriorating health, first recognized in a 1991 Navy command directive that authorized officers to "provide for the geriatric needs" of this special community.

Several have been flown to U.S. Navy facilities for surgery. Six receive meals-on-wheels, delivered from the hospital's kitchen. Among them is a woman with advanced dementia and no next of kin.

Soon, Buehn said, the Navy will assign a sailor full-time to oversee their needs. Now the work is done ad hoc by the command staff and Spanish-speaking volunteers.

Buehn said some of the last 64 may yet move away, to join adult children who have grown up and moved to the United States, mostly to Florida.

"Many have places they can go, " he said. "But they like it here. It's Cuba still."